Research and development | Manufacturers say interest in precision agriculture is growing
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Big will get bigger, precision will be the norm, complex will become easier and everything will speak and play nice with everything else and deliver profits and intelligence as well as data.
That is what farm equipment company leaders say is the future of farm machinery.
Many of the world’s farm equipment manufacturing leaders were in Kansas City earlier this month, roaming the floors and speaking to farmers and the rest of the industry during Ag Connect, the American Equipment Manufacturers’ premiere agricultural event.
Several shared their opinions about the trends that are guiding their companies’ research and development divisions and how they are planning for the fields and farms of the future.
Jim Walker, head of Case IH in North America, said his company will spend $1.8 billion on research and development in the next three years creating new machinery and refining what is a farm machine.
“Computers are farm machines and the new farm machines rely on latest technologies. These are no longer separate things,” Walker said.
“They are essential parts of it. Sometimes they are the tools that are making farmers more efficient.… In North America we aren’t developing any more acres of farmland. In most of the world we aren’t.… In many places it is being lost, so making more from every acre is the focus,” he said.
Farming more acres has been the path to improved prosperity for most producers, especially through most of the 20 years before 2008.
Gary MacDonald of Winnipeg’s MacDon Industries said the 30 and 40 foot combine and swather headers and 200-plus horsepower power units that were previously considered large are now common sizes.
“Only a couple of years ago, 30 and 40 foot headers were big. Now farmers want 45s and all we can build. Heck, in Australia producers are pressuring us for 50s.”
Larger sizes and faster operating speeds will continue to be a major trend, he added.
“At the same time farmers want fewer servicing and maintenance issues, because all that takes time away from (field operations),” MacDonald said.
Walker said one of the problems with the largest equipment is that it is difficult for dealers to manage the used units. He feels there are limits when it comes to size, but not all of them are size itself: some are related to the distribution chain and the realities of farm size.
“Not everyone is large,” he said.
Roy Applequist, who runs Great Plains Manufacturing in Kansas, said his company has seen the need for wider seed drills and bigger vertical tillage gear.
However, he said his customers seek out the Great Plains machinery for its precision and speed rather than physical size.
“They tell us they want to get the most out of every acre and out of every plant, so we have spent a lot of time and money refining our tools.”
Applequist said seed placement and agronomy will define the drills and tillage systems of the next decade.
Walker said the cost of precision has been dropping rapidly and fewer producers are opting to buy the less agronomic ally advanced equipment that is available.
“Precision technology is evolving rapidly and getting cheaper by the quarter,” he said.
Manufacturers say they are under pressure from farmers and their dealership chains to deliver precision technology that is not only less costly but can be upgraded and replaced more easily.
“It needs to move to open-source architecture … ISO standard platforms, plug and play with (any) machine,” said Walker.
Mark Harrington of Trimble knows this better than most farm manufacturers.
His company produces some of the most advanced agricultural mapping and geographical tools on the market.
“If you think things in the (information technology) space are moving fast now, the next 10 years is going to astonish you when it comes to farming,” he said.
Harrington sees whole farm systems, similar to what is used in manufacturing and other process heavy industries, as becoming the norm on the farm.
Walker said that type of integration is being used at Case IH as the company adapts Iveco’s telematics expertise into its farm equipment for location, monitoring and dispatching.
Harrington said farmers will increase their accumulation of data as they see its benefits. They will also begin to aggregate it and look for new ways to improve profitability through efficiency, he added.
MacDonald cautioned against expansion in manufacturing.
“The farm market can change rapidly and so goes our businesses,” he said.
MacDonald’s company has gone from 650 staff to about 1,500 in a few years.
“How long will this commodity price run last?” he said.
Applequist said another year of drought in the United States might cause him to look at his operations, but he felt that U.S. crop insurance filled in the losses of 2013.
As a result, his company, like most manufacturers attending Ag Connect, say their order books are staying full.